The Next Chapter

Susan Juby's novel Mindful of Murder is a murder mystery full of humour and compassion

The award-winning author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing her comedic murder mystery Mindful of Murder.
Susan Juby is a Nanaimo, B.C.-based writer. (Delgado Photography)

Susan Juby is a Nanaimo, B.C.-based writer. Her other books include the YA novel Alice, I Think, memoir Nice Recovery and novel Republic of Dirt, which won the Leacock Medal for Humour. Juby is also a columnist for The Next Chapter.

(HarperCollins Canada)

Juby's novel Mindful of Murder, flips the script on the expression 'the butler did it.' In the comedic mystery, Helen Thorpe is a former Buddhist nun who is fresh out of Butler School. When a suspicious death takes place in an upscale spiritual retreat, suspicions turn to a quartet of suspects with a motive for murder.

Juby spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Mindful of Murder.

In love with detective stories

"I love the idea that it is possible to solve the world's injustices, even if it's according to the moral codes of whoever the investigators are. I find that incredibly satisfying. So there's that justice piece that we don't get much of sometimes it feels like in real life. I also love the way that a great mystery writer will develop a detective that you can walk alongside them and you're almost in their shoes.

There's something appealing about finding yourself next to somebody who has some qualities that make them brave or smart or able to solve things that we can't solve in our own lives.

"There's something appealing about finding yourself next to somebody who has some qualities that make them brave or smart or able to solve things that we can't solve in our own lives. So I tend to fall in love with the place of the mystery, and in a good mystery I'll fall in love with the detective.

"There's also the intellectual fun of trying to figure out who did it and having it just out of reach."

Dying, laughing

"Part of what I do is I like to make people laugh. I like to divert them and give them a little respite from the world. That's always what I'm interested in with my work. So I knew I wanted it to be a funny murder mystery. And as I set out to write it, I started six years ago, I realized that there's nothing very funny about murder. It was a balancing act to try to bring in the comedy without minimizing the sadness of someone having their life taken.

It took a lot of massaging to figure out how exactly to maintain that balance of humour and seriousness where it's appropriate.

"It really took a lot of massaging to figure out how exactly to maintain that balance of humour and seriousness where it's appropriate. In some people's hands, it's a slapstick thing. But I wanted to treat that part of it with respect."

Buddhist, butler, gumshoe

"I knew I wanted a butler because I'm obsessed with butlers. And it occurred to me that butlers and Buddhists have some things in common — so they tend to be centred and calm. That would be a wonderful quality in an amateur sleuth — that ability to have the 'clear-seeing' and have people open up emotionally just from your presence.

"I love P.G. Wodehouse, and I've loved P.G. Wodehouse for my whole life. I love this idea of the dynamic between a butler and an employer. But I've always sided with the butler. The butler in P.G. Wodehouse is very competent and so forth. I love that idea that someone can have what from the outside looks like every advantage — all the money, all the freedom to do things. But, they're dependent on this highly competent person to take care of them. And so I really think that's appealing.

That would be a wonderful quality in an amateur sleuth — that ability to have the 'clear-seeing' and have people open up emotionally just from your presence.

"And for a time, I thought I might like to be a butler. I investigated butler schools. There are a couple of butler schools that I was interested in, and then the reality of what it would mean to be a butler hit home as I did that research. The reality is that you have to be probably very organized; I'm a notably terrible housekeeper and not emotionally balanced. I still remain fascinated by the skillset."

Compassionate villains

"I think you can approach a mystery novel in a couple of ways. One is that the villain is bad —they're a bad, evil person. And it's exciting to track down the rotten person and expose them and punish them. That is satisfying for the reader. But I always find another level of emotional engagement with a book when you see that, 'Oh, this is a person who you could see exactly why they did it.' And to activate compassion, at least in the Buddhist tradition — compassion is actually almost a pleasurable feeling.

I always find another level of emotional engagement with a book when you see that, 'Oh, this is a person who you could see exactly why they did it.'

"It's very different from pity or any of those things when you see that someone has done something wrong and you can feel the kid in them and the misunderstood person in them. That is more interesting and satisfying emotional response.

"So I wanted to make sure that was present in the climax of the novel, that we can have that compassion for the murderer."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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